The Sapphire Necklace

Background | Recordings


The story of Sullivan's stillborn first opera, The Sapphire Necklace, is a short yet tantalizing one. In 1862, Sullivan returned from Leipzig after a successful course of study as England's first Mendelssohn Scholar. On the strength of his Tempest score, the young composer was hailed as the future of English music. Shortly thereafter, he began composing an opera, The Sapphire Necklace, to a libretto by the music critic Henry F. Chorley.

Although Chorley was one of Sullivan's earliest supporters, he was an odd choice as an opera librettist, as he had never written one before. Perhaps Chorley's contribution was weak, or perhaps the time wasn't right for acceptance of an opera by the still-unproven young Sullivan. Whatever the reason, Sullivan's hope of a production at Covent Garden came to naught.

From what little we know, it appears Sullivan did compose the entire opera, or very nearly all of it. He had sold the score to Metzlers and in 1880 bought it back again. The overture was a frequent concert piece, and after a performance of it in 1886, the Illustrated London News described it as part of "an opera which has not yet been produced," suggesting that the possibility of a complete performance was still being entertained. In 1897, while Sullivan was on the Riviera composing Victoria and Merrie England, he wrote to his secretary Wilfred Bendall that he had "a page or two" or the Sapphire Necklace score with him there (some of which he evidently borrowed for the ballet).

No one knows what became of The Sapphire Necklace. There are indications Sullivan was revising the score at one point under a new title, The False Heiress, but nothing came of it. Two vocal numbers were published as detached items, and the overture was published in a military band arrangement, but none of the orchestral material survives. Yet, as at least part of the score survived late into the composer's life, we may yet hope that, like Thespis, it still survives....somewhere.

The overture is very much in the style of Mendelssohn and suggests that The Sapphire Necklace would have been a far more serious work than the comic operas for which Sullivan later became known. Charles Dickens was a great admirer of the overture, but despite its promise it abounds in immaturity. This is perhaps suggested by the backhanded compliment of critic Henry C. Lunn, writing in The Musical Times in 1863:

Of his overture to The Sapphire Necklace we may say that there is much to admire and that, without contrasting it with mature works, it contains sufficient to show that Mr Sullivan has power to advance to a high place provided that power be rightly directed in time . . . ."


  1. Fulham Light Operatic Society; 1972

    The two surviving vocal numbers from The Sapphire Necklace, When love and beauty and Over the roof, were offered as bonus tracks on the Fulham Light Operatic Society's world premiere recording of The Zoo.

    Issue History, see:
    Fulham Zoo
  2. RTE Concert Orchestra, Dublin; Andrew Penny, conductor; 1992

    This recording uses a reconstruction of the overture by Sullivan scholar Roderick Spencer.

    Issue History, see:
    Arthur Sullivan: Incidental Music
  3. Alderley Singers & Festival Orchestra; Peter England, conductor; 2000

    Like the Fulham recording above, this recording includes both of the surviving vocal numbers — When love and beauty and Over the roof — as well as numerous other "forgotten" items by Sullivan and Balfe.

    Issue History, see:
    Forgotten Victorian Theatre Music (Sullivan & Balfe)
  4. Stephen Turnbull pointed out that there is an excellent recording of the madrigal, "When love and beauty," sung by the Gregg Smith Singers on a CD called Madrigals — and All That Jazz on the Newport Classics label, NPD 85524 (issued 1993). The disc also includes a sparkling doo-wop version of the number.